The cultural boycott of Israel: Why Sally Rooney is right
Earlier in October, it was revealed that Irish author, Sally Rooney, refused an offer from the Israeli publisher Modan to publish her latest book.
Many media outlets were awash with misleading headlines wrongly claiming that Rooney was refusing to allow her book to be published in Hebrew.
In a statement published on 12 October, Rooney affirmed her position and expressed her long-standing support for the Palestinian struggle and adherence to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) guidelines.
"BDS is a Palestinian-led movement that takes inspiration from the South African anti-apartheid struggle that utilised boycotts to pressure the regime"
She is part of a cohort of hundreds of Irish cultural figures who stand with the Palestinian people and pledge to uphold the cultural boycott of Israel.
BDS is a Palestinian-led movement that takes inspiration from the South African anti-apartheid struggle that utilised boycotts to pressure the regime. The academic and cultural boycott call, issued in 2004, asks international artists and cultural figures to refuse complicity with Israeli apartheid by boycotting Israeli institutions unless they recognise the comprehensive rights of the Palestinian people.
This call came after decades of failed international interventions, negotiations, and dialogue projects, and was predicated on the need for “a Palestinian frame of reference outlining guiding principles” on how to deal with Israel.
The demands of the movement are clear: the recognition of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people under international law; the end of the military occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands (including the Syrian Golan Heights) since 1967, recognising the fundamental rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel to equality, and the right of return of Palestinian refugees as stipulated by UN Resolution 194.
The BDS Movement is thus completely in line with international law. Moreover, the right to boycott has been enshrined as a legal political tool many times. Importantly, boycotting, in this case, isn’t simply a principled stance, it is a political tactic, emanating from a long history of global south resistance aimed at bringing about action that forces Israel to comply with international law. Crucially, BDS targets complicity, not identity.
The academic and cultural boycott recognises that Israel uses both these areas as a means to carry out and whitewash violations of Palestinian rights.
For example, many of Israel’s academic institutions are directly involved in developing weapons systems and military doctrines that are used by the Israeli army against the Palestinian people.
Some academic institutions are even built in internationally recognised illegal settlements in the West Bank, such as Ariel University. Similarly, Israeli cultural institutions are explicitly used to promote the notion that Israel is a ‘normal’ country.
Indeed, so much so that an official from the Israeli Foreign Ministry once said; "We are seeing culture as a hasbara tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture".
Others are even more directly complicit. Modan, the Israeli publishing company Rooney turned down, boasts on its website about producing and marketing books for the Israeli Ministry of Defence.
Those involved in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa have long emphasised the importance of cultural and academic boycotts as a way to not only create pressure from within but also outside.
"The academic and cultural boycott call asks international artists and cultural figures to refuse complicity with Israeli apartheid by boycotting Israeli institutions unless they recognise the comprehensive rights of the Palestinian people"
In the words of South African Artists Against Apartheid: “When artists and sportspeople began refusing to perform in South Africa, the world’s eyes turned to the injustices that were happening here to people of colour. This then created a wave of pressure on politicians and world leaders representing their constituencies, to insist on a regime-change - this contributed to a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also frequently stated the importance of boycotts in bringing about an end to apartheid. In the context of the Cape Town Opera performing in Tel Aviv, he stated: “Just as we said during apartheid that it was inappropriate for international artists to perform in South Africa in a society founded on discriminatory laws and racial exclusivity, so it would be wrong for Cape Town Opera to perform in Israel”.
Whilst other countries are also guilty of violating international law and the rights of other peoples, as was true at the time of the South African boycott movement, the accusation that those who support BDS are singling out Israel is an intellectually weak argument.
Those who adhere to BDS are directly responding to a call from Palestinian civil society. BDS itself is an anti-racist and internationalist movement that has many connections to other struggles around the world, from Kashmir to Black Lives Matter in the US. Indeed, BDS cannot be seen in isolation from other growing movements around the world which are demanding accountability and justice.
Despite what critics say, the BDS Movement is successful, and it is gaining momentum. Thousands of artists and cultural figures across the world have signed statements in support of the boycott movement, such as a 2015 pledge in the UK.
Some of those who have endorsed the cultural boycott include Arundhati Roy, Judith Butler, Naomi Klein, and Angela Davis. On the academic scene, thousands of campuses have adopted BDS resolutions to demand that their places of learning are not complicit in Palestinian oppression. ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ now sits firmly on the calendar of progressive student groups around the world.
Rooney is thus far from being alone in her public solidarity with the Palestinian people and adherence to the BDS Movement guidelines.
Decades since its establishment, Israel continues to ramp up its aggressive military assaults, take-over of Palestinian land, and destruction of Palestinian homes. In the face of total impunity and a lack of international intervention, BDS provides international allies and friends with a way in which to support the Palestinian struggle from the grassroots.
Responding to this call is the minimum that those with progressive and internationalist values can do.
Yara Hawari is the Palestine Policy Fellow of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network
Follow her on Twitter: @yarahawari
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.